- The Stories from The North, written and directed by Urupong Raksasad (2005)
- Reviewed at the Bangkok Fringe Festival 2008 on February 3, 2008
- Rating: 5/5
Just like the herd of water buffalo that vaporises into thin air, the traditional lifestyle of rural Thailand is quickly vanishing as the older generation that clings to it fades away and younger ones adopt more fast paced, urban lifestyles.
The Stories from The North, a 2005 film by Uruphong Raksasad captures this fleeting moment in time. Edited together from several short films Uruphong made over the years in his home village in northern Thailand, the film presents nine vignettes of rural life. Together they give a touching portrait of people who are connected to the land and its rhythms. It's a lifestyle that hasn't changed much for centuries until the last decade or so, with rapid urbanization and technological advances.
In March of Time, a solitary old tends to his water buffalo, and is accompanied in his wooden hut by only his dog. He watches over the land - the people harvesting rice, and a funeral procession. Some noises late at night prompt him to grab his ancient rifle, and stand guard. The mood is brightened when a boy and his red kite come to the farm for a visit.
Next is Day & Night, which shows children growing up on the land, catching fish and seemingly blissfully unaware of the idyllic life they are leading. When will it end? Colorfully football jerseys provide the clues that most of these children are already looking to leave the village when they are old enough.
The Musician features a lone, wandering minstral, who takes shelter in a rice field shack, and plays his phin (a three-stringed lute).
The Longest Day is a particularly moving piece about an elderly woman who is bored with life's rhythms - sleeping, sitting, eating - and misses her children, who have moved away. Her only bright spot comes from the visit of another elderly woman, and the companionship of a marmalade cat. The old woman just wishes she could die in her sleep.
The Harvest is about a group of people harvesting rice by hand. The camaraderie and sense of community is one of the things that has gone away from the rural scene, as these harvesting parties are replaced by machines.
The Way follows a man with a boy on his shoulders, forcing their way through a thicket, looking for a shortcut. The camera follows.
Buffalo is another very affecting piece about a man and his buffalo herd. One day, some kids on motorcyles ride into his pasture and spook the man and his animals. Later, the buffalo vanish. A search is mounted for the missing draft animals, which even takes in the bustling cattle market. They are never found. But the village pools its resources and provides the old man with a buffalo cow and calf.
The Bicycle Song follows dozens of elderly people as they don fluorescent jerseys and mount their old bicycles and take to the highways, with cadence lines that line the shoulder for miles. No Tour de France this, they are all old, and ride at a relaxed pace.
The last vignette, Going Home, is played over the end credits, and features a young man on an off-road motorcycle, riding home.
Similar snapshots of rural Thailand life that came to mind are Merian Cooper's and Ernest B. Schoestack's 1927 dramatized documentary Chang, which though a contrived, condescending Hollywoodized view of old Siam, it presents a glimpse at Thai rural life that hadn't changed for centuries. Vichit Kounavudhi's Son of the Northeast from 1982 is another example. But the poetic Stories from The North treated its subject matter with the most respect.
The Bangkok Fringe Festival 2008 hosted a series of short films and independent features from Southeast Asia and Taiwan over two weeks. Here is a look of the rest of program from the first weekend on February 2-3, 2008:
S-Express Indonesia - Four shorts: Harap Tenang Ada Ujian! (Be Quiet, Exam is in Progress!) by Ifa Ifansyah Kalah atau Menang (Lose or Win) by Donny Prasetyo Utomo; Still Life by Ariani Darmawan & Hosanna Heinrich); and Trophy Buffalo by Vanni Jamin. This was a very strong program, dominated by films with compelling stories and strong narratives. I especially enjoyed Be Quiet, for its little boy who survives the 2006 Jogyakarata earthquake, and then chases off the Japanese relief workers because he thinks they are trying to invade again. Lose or Win is a funny story about street gangs playing capture the flag. Trophy Buffalo is a Romeo & Juliet romance between a boy and girl from rival families that stage water buffalo fights, but it has a happy ending. Rating: 4/5
Love Conquers All - The debut feature by Malaysian director Tan Chui Mui, I was puzzled by this story of Ping, a young woman who comes to Kuala Lumpur from Penang to help out at her aunt's restaurant. Though she at first acts like she has backbone, she is wishy-washy, and loses herself in a relationship with a smooth-talking local guy named John. More rewarding is a sub-plot involving Ping's aunt and young niece. Rating: 4/5
S-Express Singapore - Seven shorts: 4 Days 3 Nights by Ming; Blood Ties by Chai Yee Wei; Dream a Rainbow by Ming; The Mole by Victric Thng; Remember Me by Chris Chong Chan Fui; Stranger by Boo Junfeng & Adrian Tan; Sunat by M. Raihan Halim. Varying works, from the strong, gritty horror-thriller Blood Ties, to the Gothic animation of The Mole, which appears to be set in 19th century England. Rating 4/5
Invisible City - Directed by Tan Pin Pin, this 60-minute documentary looks at Singaporean history that is being forgotten, interviewing a Chinese man who survived the anti-Chinese moves by the government in the 1950s and '60s; a British medical researcher who is stubbornly holding on to his hundreds of hours of film footage from the '50s to the '80s but can't remember the words to describe what he filmed; an elderly Englishwoman photographer who remains mentally sharp but is bed-ridden, and is heart-broken that she will never return to England; and a young Singaporean archeologist, who probes the past on a patch of earth that is rapidly being redeveloped and paved over, erasing bits and pieces of history. Taken together with the some of the seven short films in the S-Express Singapore program, - particularly Stranger, about the Indian community; Sunat, about the Muslim community, and the fleeting works by Ming - Invisible City offering an interesting look at the notion of being Singaporean, a concept that only began to be institutionalised with the city-state's separation from Malaysia in 1965. Rating: 4/5
S-Express Philippines - Six shorts: ABCD by Roxless; Chicken Soup 2 by R. A. Rivera; it feels so good to be alive by Antoinette Jadaone; Line Drawing by Poklong Anading; A Study for ‘The Skies’ by Raymond Red; Tag Along (Saling Pusa) by Antoinette Jadaone. This is a mix of mainly older works, all very strong and creative. They ranged from the experimental animation of ABCD, to the experimentally surreal Chicken Soup 2, about a John Lennon fan who's wanting to kill himself and man who won't part with this 3-year-old toothbrush; to triumphant in A Study for 'The Skies', about a man trying to fly, and Tag Along, about a little girl with a pink flower in her hair playing cards with three rough customers. Even line drawing, which simply follows a pencil as it scrapes on a concrete wall for 11 minutes was strangely entertaining. Rating: 5/5
Before We Fall in Love Again - The first film in Malaysian director James Lee's Love Trilogy (or, if you'd rather, the Betrayal Trilogy), deals a pair of men who team up to look for a missing woman (Len Siew Mee), she being the wife of one of the men (Chye Chee Keong), and the lover of the other (Pete Teo). Presented in digital black and white, the film has droll, meditative pace as it flashes back on the woman Ling Yue's relationships with the two men. Slow moving, mundane and tedious, the pay-off for watching comes in the third act when things start to spin out of control, with elements that include a strange woman in a hotel room (reminded me of Ho Yuhang's Rain Dogs), a confrontation with the woman's first love and then seeing the guy beat up by some Hawaiian-shirt-wearing yakuza. I missed seeing this when it screened at the 2007 Bangkok International Film Festival, where it won Best ASEAN Film, so I was glad to catch up. Rating: 4/5
The Bangkok Fringe Festival's See the SEA film series continues on February 16 and 17 at Patravadi Theatre, across the Chao Phraya River from Bangkok. Admission is 100 baht for each day's afternoon of films.